Your connection to the University of Michigan-Dearborn | Fall 2019

The New Faces of Research

Students in a Research Lab
Through an Mcubed research project, Assistant Professor Zhi “Elena” Zhang (third from left), shows students (from left) Samiha Ishrat, Carissa Root and Kanika Karmaker how to use the lab’s cryostat machine, which thinly slices tissue so it can be examined under a microscope.

What’s the Dearborn difference? Our students — starting as undergraduates — are involved with consequential research and industry-connected faculty mentors. It’s something you might expect from a school with foundational roots in business and engineering.

For students, this experiential learning and networking is transformative. And that’s not just a buzzword. It’s backed by data. New alumni, on a campus made up of nearly 40 percent first-generation undergraduate students, start their careers with the fourth-highest starting salary of all Michigan public higher education institutions. 

Wolverine undergraduates are given the opportunity to stand out. One of those ways is through a U-M research initiative called Mcubed — aptly named because each research project brings together three faculty members from the three University of Michigan campuses. 

UM-Dearborn faculty members and their student research assistants are taking part in 33 Mcubed research projects, which explore special education needs, cultural preservation, cell regeneration and more. It’s this consequential research that supports these experiential learning and transformational statements — along with advancing technological innovation, democratic vitality and the promise of opportunity.

Enlisting nanoparticles in the fight against pediatric traumatic brain injuries 

UM-Dearborn senior Samiha Ishrat recalls being told that bumps and bruises are a part of childhood play and exploration. Falls are lightheartedly included in favorite kid songs and nursery rhymes. 

But science is showing that the effects from seemingly routine tumbles aren’t as benign as believed: Traumatic brain injury is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide — more than any other traumatic insult. And it affects more than 1.7 million Americans each year, with children birth to age four at the highest risk. 

That’s not something to sing about. 

Working with Assistant Professor of Neurobiology Zhi “Elena” Zhang in the research lab to discover ways to rescue cell loss affected by head trauma, Ishrat, a biology major, listens to why this is a concern. 

“Children this young may not be able to tell you something is wrong. Many times they get back up and keep playing as if nothing serious has happened,” said Zhang, whose research focus is neuroplasticity in learning and memory. “But, as they get older, we may see learning disabilities and emotionally erratic behavior tied to these falls and bumps that cause pediatric traumatic brain injury (TBI). If we can prevent and reverse the progression of the injury while their brains are still developing, they may avoid delays or erratic behaviors associated with TBI.” 

“Children this young may not be able to tell you something is wrong. Many times they get back up and keep playing as if nothing serious has happened.” — Zhi “Elena” Zhang, assistant professor of neurobiology

Zhang, whose interest in this research area strengthened when she was pregnant with her first child, said there is a way to reverse the brain damage. Through her previous research work at Johns Hopkins University, there are several medicines that are proven to work in a lab — essentially they can reduce neuroinflammation and excitotoxicity, allowing for improved memory and function — but putting the procedure into practice is another challenge.

“We didn’t find a cure for those longlasting effects from TBI. That’s because the majority of the drugs cannot pass the blood-brain barrier, which is what separates the blood from our brain tissues to protect our central nervous system,” Zhang said. “However, nanoparticles can cross the blood-brain barrier. So we want to see if we put the drugs on the nanoparticle, will it go to the target cells? And, if it does, will the drug be active once it crosses the barrier? I needed experts in other areas to help with this.”

Filling the Gaps

So Zhang started an Mcubed project — targeting endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress and restoring ER homeostasis in pediatric traumatic brain injuries — hoping to find a cell biology and a nanotechnology expert to fill in research specialty gaps. 

Today, Zhang, Professor of Chemistry Krisanu Bandyopadhyay and U-M’s Guojun Shi, a research investigator of molecular and integrative physiology, are working together with nearly 10 UM-Dearborn undergraduate students to find a way to get effective medicine across the blood-brain barrier. 

“This research challenges me to think differently,” Ishrat said. “You think outside the box, explore different paths in your search, expect the unexpected and be resilient regardless of negative outcomes. These are some essential qualities that are not only crucial for a researcher, they are also important when navigating through life.”

On a Friday afternoon, Bandyopadhyay has two students creating the needed nanoparticles in his Natural Sciences Building (NSB) lab. Investigator Shi is also on campus to collaborate with the UM-Dearborn team. Shi said, “We work well together because we have different expertise and can do this research at the nano, micro and macro level.” 

Two floors away in Zhang’s lab, also in the NSB, four more student researchers are at work. Ishrat is there, examining tissue samples on the lab’s microscope to see which ones show potential therapeutic efficacy. 

“I am doing something that may improve someone’s quality of life. It’s something we all talk about doing — trying to make our world a better place — and through my work on this project, I’m given the opportunity to do that,” said Ishrat. 

Bandyopadhyay said the cross-collaborative research done through Mcubed also allows for students to have access to additional mentoring opportunities and different lab experiences. And it gives faculty members information that may help move along other research they are working on. 

For example, any findings in this pediatric brain injury study may help U-M’s Shi with his cell renewal research to improve health outcomes for people with diabetes or age-degenerative diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s. 

“We are looking at the central nervous system and Guojun is currently researching endocrinology, a field where getting drugs across the blood-tissue barrier is also a problem,” Bandyopadhyay said. “There is a broad application for this research. A discovery on how to get a drug that still has an effective reaction across the blood-brain barrier would be a medical breakthrough.”

“My aunt had Alzheimer’s. She couldn’t remember her name. I saw what it did to her and how it affected our family. This research helps me actively do something that may stop that from happening to other people.” — Kanika Karmaker, UM-Dearborn senior and Mcubed participant 

Expert Guidance

While looking at the effectiveness of the metal nanoparticles that he and his undergraduate students have created in the lab, Bandyopadhyay notes that the student drive behind the work is key to success. He said it’s impressive that teens and early 20-somethings are so dedicated.

 “They are learning research steps and conducting high-level research before graduate school; many present findings at national and international conferences. The work ethic shown by students in our research labs is incredible. Many of them go on to medical school, taking experiences like this with them.” 

Zhang, whose first child is now 10, said her recently funded Mcubed project supports her research in finding ways to reverse central nervous system damage, helping her and many other parents to not be so concerned about those bumps and bruises. 

And it will give the undergraduates in Zhang and Bandyopadhyay’s labs an understanding of research practices, a connection to facilities and colleagues in Ann Arbor, and an idea of what they’d like to do in the future. 

“We are here to guide our students in learning and to help find answers and solutions for the public,” Bandyopadhyay said. “And that’s what we are doing.” 

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